Perfecting the Pub
A new "publick house" in Newcastle cooks local food for a local crowd.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
Photograph by Jeff Scher
A pub is a different animal in England than the United States. While the American variety emphasizes drink, the British pub is the heart of the community, a place where friends and families celebrate new jobs, play games, and catch up on gossip over a meal and a pint.
That’s the spirit that the Newcastle Publick House aims to capture in the nineteenth-century Newcastle Square building just above Damariscotta village. Happily it parts from the English tradition when it comes to the menu, though. The food here is good. Really good.
“Our focus is on local people,” says Alex Nevens, who owns the nine-month-old restaurant with his wife, Rachel. “As we talked about this venture, we asked, ‘What is the area missing? Where would we like to hang out over the long winter?’ ” Islesboro natives, the couple now live just up the hill. “We plan to be here a long, long time,” Alex says. “We hope to become an institution.”
They seem to be well on their way. Board games sit on windowsills, awaiting diners who fill the pub room’s cozy booths every evening, but especially on Wednesdays when local musicians perform. Behind the enormous bar, whose polished dark mahogany reflects the fireplace’s glow, a pigeon-hole shelf holds pottery mugs for members of the Mug Club. These regulars receive larger-than-usual servings of the pub’s half dozen or so local brews on tap, as well as occasional meal discounts. The adjacent dining room is quieter and slightly more formal with its wide pine board floors and murals of local scenes by Alna artist Doreen Conboy.
“Anyone, whether it’s someone in a business suit or someone just off the lobsterboat, can feel welcome at any time,” Rachel says. “Our menu says that, too. You can get a burger for eight dollars or a beef tenderloin for twenty-two dollars. The menu helps create the atmosphere.”
Nearly everything on the menu, from the whole-wheat dough pizzas to the Irish bangers, is prepared atop a wood-fired grill, whose lovely smell wafts through the dining rooms and starts stomachs growling (those, that is, that weren’t stirred on the way in by the outdoor smoker slow-cooking chicken wings, turkey and pork, as well as duck breast for a sumptuous dinner salad featuring roasted grapes, spiced walnuts, and gorgonzola). While Rachel manages the front of the house, Alex works in the kitchen alongside chef Dale Swartzentruber.
“Rachel and Alex came to me with the idea of a place for everyone,” says Swartzentruber, a veteran of the restaurant kitchens of St. Croix in the Caribbean before settling in Maine, where he has cooked for Portland’s prestigious Fore Street and the short-lived but highly regarded Decoupage, among others. “I took that idea and rolled with one menu all day long. Four people can sit down together at any time of day, and one of them can order a hanger steak, another a burger, another a smoked turkey sandwich, and another wood-fired scallops.”
Swartzentruber’s emphasis on local meat, fish, and vegetables reflects the influence of chef Sam Hayward, his boss at Fore Street. He favors Newcastle’s Morning Dew Farm for the Publick House’s vegetables, including the organic greens used in the salads, and Warren’s Curtis Custom Meats for the gorgonzola-sprinkled beef tenderloin and bacon, the smoked Karubi pork ribs, and the lamb shanks that form the basis of a hearty, lightly browned shepherd’s pie. In a nod to the region’s oyster-harvesting heritage, Swartzentruber has created two mouthwatering charbroiled oyster appetizers, as well as a six-shell sampler of raw Damariscotta River varieties.
Desserts typically include an assortment of fruit and berry pies or warm brownies and chocolate chip cookies topped with vanilla ice cream, from Round Top, and fudge sauce. In addition to the Maine-brewed beers, a generous selection of wines and cocktails are available.
The Nevenses have opened a good, affordable restaurant with their neighbors in mind. “We could have made a killing slinging lobster dinners and fish platters all summer long,” Alex acknowledges, “but that’s not the approach we wanted to take. We want to be the place that the innkeeper sends the tourists who ask, ‘Where do the locals eat?’ ”
The Newcastle Publick House, 52 Main Street, Newcastle. Open every day, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. 207-563-3434. www.newcastlepublichouse.com
- By: Virginia M. Wright